Call of the Mountains

My people originate from the mountains. Fewer than ten generations ago the Ramseyers mowed in the Emmental of Switzerland, probably to raise their meager milk cows in the foothills of Alpen spires.

My first recollection of towering topography still treats our family hikes through our 160 acres of Michigan woodland. Our highest point sits on the northwest corner of my father’s property. We call it the Zugspitze after the highest peak in Germany. The previous owner of the property, a German World War I veteran befriended my mother and father and eventually sold them the land. He named our Michigan peak that tops out the ridge a mere 950ish feet above sea level. The original Zugspitze hovers over Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a massive treeless spine of rock measuring 9,718 feet into the sky.

On our family summer road trips, I dozed through the Great Smoky Mountains, too small to notice, but as I grew so did our visits to high places. First east to the Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Park Way. In another year I stared up Whiteface outside Lake Placid, New York. Still older we drove across the tedium of the plains in our blue Ford Bronco. When the Rockies appeared white on the horizon my head darted from behind the seat backs. I looked ahead, leaned forward between the bucket seats. “We’re gettin’ close,” I said.

We drove for hours more. My gaze froze the range. It’s size did not change for mile after mile. I did not yet understand that close to mountains means that they tower above the frame of car windows. Close means a craned neck, no longer able to see the top. When we ascended Pikes Peak the twisting switchbacks panicked my mother. Her fingernails grew into the door handles. She punctuated her anxiety through the dashes of sibilant inhalations at the corners of her tightened mouth, the commas of “Slow down, slow down, slow down,” and the exclamations of “Harry!” when my father pulled a hand from the wheel to point toward another amazing vista. She was alas, only a Ramseyer by marriage. I suppose she could not understand those of us with the mountains in our blood who lurched toward, then peered over the cliffs.

On my honeymoon I peered over the free fall awaiting into Yellowstone Canyon. My new bride envisioned me cascading down like the megatons of water carving away at the rock. She imagined me carved on the crags instead. We hollered in one of our first fights. I assured her I was goat footed, but she did not believe. When my family of five stayed at Waterton Lakes just across the Canadian border we hiked more than 3,000 vertical feet to Crypt Lake still buried under ten feet of snow on the first day of summer. Exhausting, exhilarating even dangerous we clung to a steel cable bolted to the rock on a path no wider than two upheld palms. On the ascent, my wife wanted a divorce even though she picked the hike. On the descent we were in love again.

But I never fell out of love. Not for the people of my life. Not for the history of my family. Not for the call of the mountains that beckons me today.

I left Ogden shortly after sunrise this morning. Route 39 cuts through a narrow river gouged crease in the Wasatch Range. A good freeze and thaw could detonate tons of tank size rock to block this twisted narrow road, but my goat footed car knew the way. Emerging into the blinding sunrise glare made me nearly miss my turn to Snowbasin Resort, but the bowls ahead gathered me in like a signal from outer space. The sedan engine whined in the constant ascent. Still seven miles away the Strawberry, Demoisy, Needles, and Mt. Ogden Peaks looked within reach. I would stop every mile or two to snap another photo each more alluring than the first.

My excitement to ski real mountains again pulsed through every vein. I quivered with anticipation, fear, reverence. When my edges bit into the snow my arcs became one with the landscape. I harnessed gravity’s power, arrived safely at the bottom only to tempt fate again and again with each chair assisted summit.

There are a myriad of Native American legends about mountains. Great chiefs lay down between warring tribes to stop their slaughter. A great warrior lay in repose after battle wounds called for his rest. He then fossilized into great mountains shaped in silhouette like his very forehead, nose, lips and chin. His weeping wounds watered the rivers that carved at the new formed slopes. Still other tribes told of girls marrying mountains, of mountains breathing lakes of fire, of great spirits living atop them looking down at us, determining our random fate.

Today I learned that those are not legends, but true.

Great spirits do live on the mountains, separate warring tribes, erupt with lava flows, curse and bless us all in one. I lapped the mountain time and time again, more runs than my legs could stand. Each fiber of muscle weakening against the strength of the alluring mountain spirits who called to me so many miles away, through so many generations of dilution from my original mountain people The spring sun melted the snow, melted my anticipation, and my fear. My anxiety with a pandemic world dripped like water through the fingers of the mountains open palms with every ski turn. My legs tired, yet grew more pliable. When I surrendered all my defenses, I heard in the center of these collecting palms of Snowbasin the Great Spirits singing to me.

In the warmest part of the day, me stripped down to my shirt sleeves, my hands bare against my poles, a sudden wind whipped over Mt. Ogden, raced across the cirque. The snow still cold at the peak of this heart of the mountain began to whip south through the bowl and swirl up the spires of Needles. This Spirit prayer spiraled up the columns of rock into the bare blue sky shaming the contrails of jets that rent the inverted ocean into sections.

Needles peak at Snowbasin near Ogden, Utah

It was then that I heard the truth of all legends. The wind rung an ancient melody through the steel of the lift. Nearly imperceptible at first, then unmistakeable. Simultaneously constant, but fleeting. A dirge composed in joy, sounded like a distant tribal flute. The notes crescendoed and diminuendoed, lachrymose, haunting, beautiful.

There in the center of that mountain today I returned to the cosmic consciousness of my birth. I do not know the name for this converse of birth, but I know it is not death. I cannot coin the word to describe this inverse of life beginning. I do not know when the universe will sound again, but today I heard its song in the call of the mountains.

About the post

Essays, Memoir, Travel

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